Anime You Should Be Watching: Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight


Anime has been a particular form of entertainment that I have been watching and enjoying for over twenty years, but my exposure to them were kept at older series and OVA’s (Original Video Animation) that were licensed by American companies for U.S. public consumption. I’m talking about series like Voltron and Robotech plus even older ones like Starblazers, Captain Harlock and G-Force. It wasn’t until four-five years ago that I really got into anime that wasn’t made age-appropriate for U.S. public viewing.

I was literally hoarding as much anime series both new and old on dvd and adding them to my collection. It didn’t matter if the series or OVAs were mecha, horror, action, romance, comedy and-or slice-of-life, if someone recommended it to me then I would go out, find it, buy it and then watch it. With my past experiences on mecha, space opera and action anime I thought I would pick up where I left off and gravitate towards similar kinds of anime. To my surprise I actually didn’t like them as much as I thought I would. The sort of anime that I began to really enjoy and want more of were the slice-of-life dramas and comedies like Azumanga Daioh, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Lucky Star and Kanon. While they didn’t have the non-stop kinetic action of series like Code Geass and the umpteenth version of Gundam and Macross, they more than made up for it with some witty and hilarious writing.

My favorite anime falls in the slice-of-life genre. I am talking about Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight! from animation studio Ufotable. The series takes place in a future Tokyo where the birth-rate has slowed and there’s less and less children attending schools. Within this basic premise we have the character of Manami Amamiya who transfers into the all-girl Seioh Private High School where her vibrant and infectious personality quickly makes her one of the popular girls. She gains a small close-knit of friends from the shy and clumsy Mika Inamori, the athletic tomboy in Mutsuki Uehara, the smart, but emotionally withdrawn Mei Etoh and the eccentric Momoha Odori. Manami (or Manabi as she likes to be called) becomes the impetus for all the adventures these girls go through together as they forge a lasting friendship through good times and bad times.

One doesn’t have to be a girl to enjoy this series. Guys who like it do so because of how it reminds them of their own time in high school with their own buddies and how those bonds of friendships seems to last forever. While some have not the memories of those times will always be fond ones for both men and women who reminisce about them while watching this series. It also has some of the cutest animation with a catchy intro song. The girls’ school anthem is one that just has to be listened to.

And one of the funniest scenes from the series…


Happy Birthday to Felicia Day!

Today is the birthday for the queen of Geekdom. She has slayed with Buffy. She’s sang-along with Dr. Horrible. She’s even fought in a post-apocalyptic future. But she’s really earned the hearts of geeks (men and women) everywhere as Codex in the award-winning and popular web series, The Guild. I speak of one Ms. Felicia Day and from geeks and non-geeks everywhere I wish her a Happy Birthday!

Review: War of the Worlds (dir by Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds shows that he hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to creating blockbuster spectacle. While he has spent much of the 2000’s creating dramatic films (The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can and Munich) he hadn’t made a film which spoke epic in both spectacle and themes. He had made two unique films with sci-fi themes with A.I. and Minority Report, but still they lacked the size and oomph of Spielberg’s past blockbusters. It took him remaking for the current generation a classic sci-fi story to bring us back the Spielberg many grew up with. His take on H.G. Wells tale of aliens invading Earth was both grandiose in it’s set-up, but he was also able to deftly weave a very personal story within the larger scheme of the narrative.

Working from David Koepp and Josh Friedman’s adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel, Spielberg goes back to his roots as a maker of thrillers that first showed his talents as a director. War of the Worlds has its spectacular CG moments when the alien Tri-Pods first rise up and out of the ground to the look of awe and fear from people witnessing the event. Spielberg begins the film’s unrelentless tension from these scenes and never lets go. Once the Tri-Pods start unleashing their death-rays on the populace and whatever else is in their way the film starts moving at breakneck speed. It’s these same apocalyptic scenes of the alien’s extermination of humans that has prompted critics (both positive and negative) to bring up Spielberg’s use of 9/11 imagery. From the clouds of ash and floating pieces of clothes to the sight of people running in panic as destruction rains upon them from out of nowhere.

Some critics have labeled Spielberg’s film as exploiting the horror of 9/11 and its aftermath, yet when a film like 28 Days Later use the same imagery and themes these same critics applaud the director of this film as daring. Its an unfair criticism of Spielberg and just shows how some people just seem to use the events of 9/11 as a crutch. Yet, it is this same use of people vaporised into nothing but ash and clothng that adds to the tension and horror. It is easy to use blood and gore to bring up a feel of horror, but Spielberg one up’s this and forgo grand guignol scenes. His technique actually brings an inhuman and alien quality to the death and destruction on the screen. From the moment the aliens arrive Spielberg lets us know that this is a war that has not been seen on Earth.

Spielberg and his writers have stuck pretty close to what Wells’ wrote in the original novel, but have decided to look at the story through the eyes of a father and his son and daughter. This gives the film a more personal, disjointed and chaotic feel. There’s no scenes of the government powerbrokers debating and deciding how best to combat the aliens and their machines. No scenes of scientists trying to figure out how best to fight and get through the aliens’ defenses. In fact, War of the Worlds is the anti-Independence Day. What we get instead is a story of a man and his children trying to just survive the apocalypse occuring around them as best as they can. This choice by Spielberg and his writers to go this route is best shown in a scene where Tom Cruise’s character with his kids run into a convoy of military vehicles heading towards the frontline. We see Humvees, M1A2 Main Battle Tanks and other assorted military hardware and hundreds of soldiers. We can hear the sound of the battle just over the ridge of a hill, but just like Cruise’s character we do not actually see the battle happening. We hear snippets of commands and reports from the soldiers around Cruise. Spielberg could’ve easily panned the camera up over the ridge to see how the battle was progressing, but he stays his hand focuses instead on the dad and his family. It’s easier to go the route that Bay or Emmerich would take and show the sturm und drang, but that wasn’t the story Spielberg was trying to tell.

ILM’s work in creating the alien Tri-Pods and the subsequent terraforming the aliens begin were some very good work from an FX company with a history of impressive work. The Tri-Pods kept the original H.G. Wells description from the novels but gave them a modern take. While the George Pal version of the alien ships remain classic sci-fi icons these new Tri-Pods in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds definitely conveyed alien menace and destruction the moment they began to come out of the ground. It was a joy as a sci-fi fan to actually see that Spielberg and the writers decided to show just how menacing the alien invaders were in the way they began to terraform the planet to suit their needs. It definitely put a new definition to the term “the blood is life”.

The acting is what you expect from a Spielberg/Cruise collaboration. Cruise is actually very believable as a loser father who seem to look at his kids as more of a hindrance and a scheduled paternal duty than something he actually enjoys and looks forward to. Some of the best scenes Cruise has in the film are quiet ones between him and his daughter (played by Dakota Fanning) where he realizes that he really doesn’t know his daughter that well and can’t even remotely figure out how to calm her down and make her feel safe. When his daughter asks him to sing her a lullaby, the look of incomprehension at not knowing any showing on Cruise’s face is just brilliant. The one misfire in terms of characters in the film is Tim Robbins. The sequence in the film where they meet up with his paranoid and slowly going nuts character is actually very good in terms of ratcheting up the tension, but Robbins’ performance was more funny than anything else. Spielberg had created such a doom and gloom atmosphere that Robbins’ character’s appearance ruins it abit.

One other thing which kept me from calling this film an outright great film are the kids of Cruise’s character. While the performances by Dakota Fanning as the daughter and Justin Chatwin as the son were quite good the way they were written left them annoying and baffling. Either the daughter was a shrieking and emotional mess or the son was written as a rebellious teen who wanted to get into the fight despite knowing he was his sister’s lone protector to begin the film. It made Cruise’s character seem less of an unattentive father and boor, but more of a parent who tried his best with children who defied and talkbacked at every turn. If the writers just made the kids even remotely sympathetic it definitely would’ve rounded out their characters as real people.

Overall, I think Spielberg’s War of the Worlds succeeds in what it set out to do despite some flaws with some of the characters. It entertains and it also shows that when it comes to blockbuster filmmaking he is still the master and everyone else just pretenders to his throne. As for the ending that some think as being short, abrupt and just a tad deus ex machina in execution, well I suggest they read or reread the book again. The ending fit the film perfectly. If the film was an all-out blast to the senses then a different one may be a better fit, but for the type of story Spielberg decided to film the ending made sense in its execution.

A Quickie From Lisa Marie: Hurt Feelings/Tears of A Rapper (by Flight of the Conchords)

As I sit here frustrated by my attempts to write about how great a movie Winter’s Bone is and feeling depressed for the usual sordid, personal reasons, I realize that I’m still in a Flight of the Conchords type of mood. 

Here’s Bret and Jermaine performing my all-time favorite Conchords song, Hurt Feelings.

Sorry Sockmonkey, But This Is The Best Commercial Ever!

My fellow resident writer Lisa Marie posted that the Kia commercial which aired around the time of the Super Bowl was the brest freakin’ commercial ever but I shall disagree and nominate what has to be the best one ever. It’s a series of Old Spice commercials for their line of Body Wash products.

If you’ve already clicked the YouTube video attached above then you can see that it has action, comedy, sci-fi, nature, and Godzilla-style city destruction. All of them delivered by actor Terry Crews who can and will destroy Chuck Norris and that’s without help from his human-eyed tiger.

It was a tough call for me to pick this as the best commercial since a past Old Spice commercial with God (Bruce Campbell) shilling their product was my previous pick for best and greatest ever. But God didn’t have a tiger or city destruction in his Old Spice commercials.

Quickie Review: Hot Tub Time Machine (dir. by Steve Pink)

I was a child of the 80’s. I can’t escape that particular information about my past, but unlike some of those of my generation I wholeheartedly embrace the 80’s both the good and the bad and the oh-so-awful. This is why after watching Hot Tub Time Machine (directed by Steve Pink…quite an 80’s name if there ever was one) I have a much deeper appreciation for the things I went through growing up as a teen during the mid-80’s. Rap was just starting to get real popular. Hairstyles, fashion and pop culture was dictated by the emerging juggernaut that was MTV (when they actually played music videos). This raunchy (and it is pretty raunchy) comedy starring John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and Clark Duke definitely spoke to my inner 80’s teen self.

The film’s premise could’ve been taken straight out of any 80’s direct-to-video knock-off of Back to the Future meets Porky’s. I mean the title itself pretty much explains the premise of the film. A literal hot tub acts as a time machine which whisks the four actors mentioned above to 1986 where they get to re-live a specific night they all spent together in 1986 (well, except Duke’s character who wasn’t born yet). Talk about space-time continuum and butterfly effect gets bandied about, but in the end the whole film was just trying to insert as much 80’s pop culture references as possible within 90 and plus minutes.

The film definitely got the 80’s vibe by liberally putting in boobs and naked chicks. 80’s icons Chevy Chase, Crispin Glover and William Zabka make appearances and John Hughes moments get replicated. I mean shot literally like it was Sixteen Candles all over again. The performances by everyone involved was great and it seemed like everyone were enjoying themselves. Craig Robinson as Nick had me laughing out loud every time he said something.

One thing good I can say about Hot Tub Time Machine that encompasses everything good about it is that it played like the anti-Judd Apatow comedy. While Apatow laughers I enjoy they’ve gotten to the point that everyone tries to make their comedies sound like his. Plus, any comedy that can have Sixteen Candles and Red Dawn references in the same 30-minute span has to be awesome….Oh yeah, it also used Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” power ballad over and over.